Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Irish Roots, Plenty of Napkins

It was a red letter post-snow day. I got driven in a car.

Let's see, I believe the last time I motored was last Thursday, so the fact that a friend could show up (laundry in hand to use my washer and dryer, but that's another story) to drive us to dinner and a play was big news in these parts.

That said, it took a ridiculous 25 minutes to get to a restaurant a mere two miles away given the slow-moving traffic, massive piles of snow still blocking lanes and idiots with low-to-the-ground cars attempting to conquer snow drifts.

We are our own worst enemies post-Jonas.

Regaling me at dinner with his snow day problems - cat escaped, a movie that wouldn't play, no beans for nachos - my friend caused me to almost shoot liquid out of my nose when he took a tangent to sing the praises of his small appliances.

"I looove my toaster oven," he gushed, then raised his voice two octaves, "Holla!"

Someone's been spending way too much time in the house alone.

Despite more massive snow piles, getting to Chamberlayne Actors Theatre turned out to be surprisingly easy, not that we didn't manage to miss our final turn, but then everything looks different in the snow, doesn't it? It's not like I haven't been to CAT's cozy theater before.

Inside, my driver went off in search of chocolate for me, returning with a Hostess cupcake and earning my eternal gratitude, while I chatted with the play's charming sound designer, a playwright I hadn't seen in months.

Hardly surprisingly, tonight's crowd was small and included lots of theater insiders - actors, critics, devotees - to take in a collaboration between CAT Theatre and 5th Wall of Israel Horovitz's "Unexpected Tenderness," a snippet of which I'd seen at 5th Wall's preview party last April.

But a snippet could not have prepared me for such a powerful look at domestic terrorism and family dysfunction circa the early 1950s.

The memory play is narrated by the older version of the son, so we alternate between seeing him as part of the family dynamic trying to deal with a paranoid father who rigidly controls the family's lives and as the grown man looking back on it.

Early moments of politically incorrect humor ("No napkins, are we eating like Irish people now?" or "No socks? What are you, Italian?") spewing forth from the mother, Molly, played by a fiery yet fearful Eva DeVirgilis, set a scene of Jewish life in Massachusetts during the Eisenhower years.

Fred Iacovo delivered as the pathological husband Archie who is obsessively convinced that every time he leaves the house, his wife cheats on him, a misconception he tragically comes by honestly since his Parkinson's-ridden father felt the same raging jealousy about his wife ("It was hell being married 47 years to a beauty like your grandmother").

Like poverty, you wonder if it's a cycle that can ever be broken.

Strong performances by the entire cast ensured that the audience wouldn't look away while the darkness of the story made it difficult not to wince watching. In one particularly ugly scene, an involuntary moan escaped my mouth when Archie hit his son. It's wrenching to watch actions you can't fathom.

Dark as the playwright's memories were, the complex play wound down on a hopeful note. "Things have got to keep changing," Molly tells her children. "This is life. Thank god for that."

And while we're at it, thank goodness for CAT Theatre supporting 5th Wall's long-time devotion to the work of Israel Horovitz. Like life, it's not always easy. Like the best theater, it makes you feel deeply.

And for the reminder that tenderness should never be unexpected.


  1. Just to be accurate...this was a co-production from 5th Wall and CAT Theater. Thanks for the review.

  2. Israel Horowitz was the patron saint of Gloucester MA - I remember him when I lived there.